Writer and Director: Dorothy Kay
The hidden women of history have much to say and Ching Shih – prostitute, pirate’s wife and incestuous mother – is determined to narrate her own story in Dorothy Kay’s new play A Game Not Lost streamed by The Space. Certain of her own greatness but frustrated by the limitations of male power and narratives, Kay’s interpretation of Ching Shih’s autobiography is full of incident, drama and female agency.
Narrating her story to a client, Ching Shih’s life story begins in poverty as the daughter of a prostitute who follows in her mother’s footsteps but uses her growing seductive powers to rise to the role of Pirate Queen. Commanding the Red Flag Fleet along with her husband and the son she takes from a fisherman’s wife, Ching Shih discovers she has a very long way to fall.
Kay’s 50-minute one-woman play is structurally a little chaotic, veering between the flashback frame, the linear development of Ching Shih’s powerbase and sweeping philosophical and historical reflections on the insubstantial way in which women’s experience and contribution has been overlooked by subsequent generations. ‘You cannot erase me’, she insists while complaining that even feminists have removed prostitutes and concubines from their version of the past.
While the monologue is provisionally addressed to an unseen customer who is not referred to again, increasingly Ching Shih appears to be talking more generally to the ages and our perceived interpretations of her. On several occasions she wrongly tells the viewer that we pity or look down on her, judging her choices but, on the contrary, Kay’s character from the beginning has strength and certainty, embracing a profession which gives her own desires free reign.
The earliest part of A Game Not Lost is strong as Ching Shih clearly explains her lost childhood and the momentary fear of the powerful man who bids for her virginity before becoming her husband. Her rise and subsequent fall are less clear demarcated; there is an affair with her own adopted son (who she has raised from birth after possibly killing his mother), the defeat of her warships by an unknown assailant and a long section about the suffocating nature of love that suggests a deeper emotional connection with her mother, none of which the piece explores in sufficient detail.
Streamed live from The Space, Director Kay and producer Amber Ryder have created some textured visuals, using coloured lighting effects in particular to transport the story from the poorly-lit brothel of Ching-Shih’s early and later life to purple shaded dungeons, the warm orange safety of her time as ruler and the red fiery collapse of the warlike empire she maintained for so long, which bring valuable atmosphere to this digital staging.
The tone of Ching Shih’s reminiscences is largely superior, arrogantly proclaiming her seductive talents and ability to command, but Isabella Leung finds various layers within, hinting at the frightened innocence she held so briefly and a maternal relationship that causes pain and regret. Some of Leung’s best moments demonstrate how Ching Shih took situations such as her imprisonment and used them to build the strength of character that carries her through.
A Game Not Lost does have a valuable story to tell about a woman who exerted considerable influence but whose profession and gender ensured the official record muted her achievements. But to make a case for Ching Shih’s deserved place in history, Kay’s play needs to fill in some of the extraordinary biographical details by untangling the timeline and building up to those wider reflections on the powerful history of this forgotten woman.
Runs here until 6 March 2021